In his over 1200-word response, the Judge wrote, “His column is so full of misstatements and misconceptions that I felt compelled to respond.”
Now, as Rich Rifkin points out, this statement is not altogether true. In fact, a good deal of the money comes from traffic and parking enforcement, which are not criminal offenses.
The Judge is accurate that there is not state general fund money that is being used for the project. However, Mr. Rifkin never claimed there was.
Mr. Rifkin’s idea was for the legislature to allow that money to be used for the general fund and current cuts to the budget.
Judge Rosenberg argued to do so “would violate state law, which requires that the money collected from people who violate the law should be used for court facilities.” He further argued that “to do so would ignore the constitution, which would mandate some sort of nexus between the fee and the expenditure — using the funds from those convicted of crime to pay off a county’s debt has no nexus; using the funds to pay for court facilities certainly does.”
Ironically enough, the Judge then rejoined that the money actually is being used for the things he says it cannot be used for. He wrote, “Rifkin fails to mention that the state Legislature last year borrowed a substantial portion of this fund for ‘other purposes’ and is poised to divert a substantial amount of this fund again this year.”
He adds, “Clearly, the Legislature — which thrashes around for available pots of money in difficult times — has, in fact, diverted courthouse construction funds for ‘other purposes’ already.”
However, Judge Rosenberg was probably grateful to add further, “Fortunately, the Yolo courthouse project is so high on the list of critical projects that it will unaffected by this diversion.”
Finally he argued, “Pursuing Rifkin’s ‘logic’ to the ultimate conclusion, government should not pay for capital projects but should divert its money to pay for debt service or operations. I suppose the City of Davis should not have built or repaired roads, or parks or pools, or the Veterans’ Memorial Center or the Senior Center — per Rifkin, the money would have been better spent in operations.”
But Judge Rosenberg missed an essential point here, in that those monies did not come at a time when billions were being cut from education and employees were being laid off or furloughed. In fact, some of them impacted the court’s own employees.
We are building a new courthouse at a time of great economic hardship. This, at a time when the court itself lacks the funds for a functional computer system.
Wrote Judge Rosenberg, “Rifkin’s column then goes on to denigrate courthouse projects as ‘Taj Mahals.’ That is inaccurate and unfair.”
He is correct here, it seems the more appropriate reference would be to Hearst Castle, a largess built by media mogul William Randolph Hearst during the Great Depression. This may be worse, funded on the backs of the most disadvantaged of all disadvantaged groups – convicted criminals.
Judge Rosenberg argued that judges typically waive these fees on criminal convicts, but that is not our observation. We have observed many plea agreements and sentences, and only a small handful involved a waiver.
The courthouse fee is, of course, only part of the fines imposed on convicts. It amounts to $30.
Some may say that people who commit crimes should pay. And there is a logic to that argument.
However, if someone goes to prison they get their fees paid off through the serving of time. If, however, they are on probation and do not get prison time, they get hammered with hundreds, if not into the thousands, in fines.
These are people who are likely not working, if they are working it’s at minimum wage, and even on a monthly payment plan it puts a huge burden on them and their ability to turn their lives around.
We ran a story on part of this last August. The fines are so extensive at times, according to information we got from the Public Defender’s office last July, that clients are requesting jail time in lieu of receiving a violation of probation for the failure to pay fines. That means that, in effect, the fines are self-defeating to the effort of truly generating revenue.
So, not only does the court not get the fees, but the taxpayers have to pay for the incarceration of the inmate. Which means that at least some of the money the fund generates actually comes at the expense of other items in the budget.
In researching this phenomena, it appears to be a relatively new trend, perhaps introduced in the last twenty years.
In October 2007, the New York Times had an editorial, “Out of Prison and Deep in Debt.”
In it they wrote, “With the nation’s incarcerated population at 2.1 million and growing — and corrections costs topping $60 billion a year — states are rightly looking for ways to keep people from coming back to prison once they get out. Programs that help ex-offenders find jobs, housing, mental health care and drug treatment are part of the solution. States must also end the Dickensian practice of saddling ex-offenders with crushing debt that they can never hope to pay off and that drives many of them right back to prison.”
As the editorial points out, “A former inmate living at or even below the poverty level can be dunned by four or five departments at once — and can be required to surrender 100 percent of his or her earnings. People caught in this impossible predicament are less likely to seek regular employment, making them even more susceptible to criminal relapse.”
In fact, one study found that 12 percent of probation revocations were due not to the individual going back to a life of crime, but simply the failure to pay their debts. And many are thrown back into prison, which makes the system virtually self-defeating as a means to secure revenue.
Even “small” fines of $1000, with a payment plan, put a huge burden on an individual likely to make minimum wage, likely to have treatment obligations that preclude them from working full time, and needing to pay for rent and other living amenities.
The spin coming from those defending the court policies is that the money gets waived for hardship. But, to be honest, that is not what we are seeing. In fact, we see cases where people who are making less than $500 a month are being forced to pay $100 a month to the courts.
The one point I agree with Judge Rosenberg on is that we indeed need a new courthouse. We do. The question is the timing and manner in which it is constructed.
Wrote Judge Rosenberg, “Courthouses are important public buildings that last many generations. The current historic courthouse in Yolo County has lasted almost a century. The new Yolo courthouse will be a courthouse for the next hundred years.”
He continued, “It will not be an insubstantial building — it will house 14 courtrooms, a jury assembly area to accommodate more than 300 prospective jurors, clerks’ offices and counters for the public, holding cells for in-custody defendants, security stations and many other features unique to courthouses.”
Moreover, it will be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified – which is a good thing, but does not go to the heart of the matter.
The heart is this, the courthouse will hold 14 courtrooms and many other court uses.
He wrote, “Rifkin then criticizes the 14 courtrooms planned in the new courthouse by asserting that each will be twice the size of the current courtrooms. It is certainly correct that the new courtrooms will be twice the size of current courtrooms. But what Rifkin fails to say is that current courtrooms are less than half the size of a standard California courtroom per state minimum standards.”
And if Mr. Rifkin had taken me up on my invitation to visit the courthouse, he would agree with Judge Rosenberg, as he sees how cramped the typical courtroom is with people waiting in the hallways for cases to be called.
He continued, “We have inadequate space for jurors, who often have to sit on stairways. We have no space for children. The wiring, plumbing and electrical systems are ancient. Hallways are shared by in-custody defendants, witnesses, victims, jurors, members of the public, judges and staff. It is truly medieval.”
I agree, particularly the holding cells which are tiny and archaic and do not appear that they should be legal.
There are a number of problems with the current courthouse. The first is that it is not large enough. It only has eight courtrooms and we currently use 14 courtrooms and that does not even include Traffic Court. So the arraignment facility is across Third Street, there is another facility that is just built over on Main Street almost by the railroad tracks, and Traffic Court is housed over on 1st Street. Small claims court is another facility as well.
Right now they march the in-custody inmates from a facility on the other side of Third Street, across Third, and into the first floor of the courthouse. They are wearing jail garb and chained together into a line. It is not only not ideal from a security standpoint but it is also dehumanizing.
I think Rich Rifkin’s point is very well taken on the timing issue.
And I question the appropriateness of a sitting judge weighing in on these matters in such a public way. For one thing, this is not before any kind of deliberative body that will be considering this.
I say this with all due respect to Judge Rosenberg, who in my view is one of the better judges that we have.
—David M. Greenwald reporting